October 5 - November 11, 2001
Written by David Schulner
Directed by Joan Schirle
with Aaron Davidman, Corey Fischer, Naomi Newman
scenic and costume design by Giulio Perrone
lighting design by David Robertson
music by Beth Custer
ROBERT ALTER will join ATJT for a discussion after the performance of Isaac on Friday, November 9.
Robert Alter is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. His books include THE ART OF BIBLICAL NARRATIVE, which won the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought, and HEBREW AND MODERNITY. His translation of Genesis, GENESIS: A NEW TRANSLATION WITH COMMENTARY, was published by Norton in 1996.
Theatre after 9/11
During the second week of rehearsals for Isaac, we, like the entire country, were thrown into a state of shock, grief and terrible confusion by the events of September 11, 2001. Though we didn’t know it at the time, our managing director, Helene Sanghvi York, had witnessed most of the attack and the collapse of the towers through an apartment window on 20th Street in Manhattan. The rest of us saw the images repeated over and over on television, heard the voices of reporters, commentators, survivors, experts and elected officials on the radio and read countless emails from here and abroad. And we kept rehearsing Isaac. As we get close to opening, I’ve been reflecting on the relevance of what we do, both in terms of our process and of the content of the work.
Under the best of circumstances, we need narratives to make sense of our lives. A day like September 11 shatters stories. Storytellers—and theatre artists are definitely that—struggle to find the shards from which a new narrative can be pieced together.
The playwright, David Schulner, has challenged one of the mythic narratives at the root of our Judeo-Christian-Islamic civilization to ask what are the repercussions of Abraham’s faith.
Isaac, it should be noted, is one of a projected trilogy of plays David is writing based on the saga of Abraham—father of both the Hebrew and Arab peoples—and his family. Ishmael imagines a meeting at Abraham’s tomb between the two brothers, Isaac and Ishmael. Hagar takes up the relationship between Sarah and Hagar. You can imagine how eager we are to see these works develop. It’s extremely gratifying to have discovered a playwright of such youth—he was barely learning to read when ATJT was founded in 1978—who shares our fascination with this material.
As we continue to rehearse Isaac, the themes of the play: the sacrifice of the young by an older generation; the violence that can be justified by faith; the challenge of discerning which voice one is really following—life affirming or life denying, God or Satan—take on an almost frightening immediacy. And yet, the work days are also full of buoyant moments of play, discovery and humor. The meaning of Isaac’s name—which can never be taken only literally or only ironically—is, after all, laughter.
In the times of great personal or collective upheaval that I’ve experienced, the power of theatre has made itself felt in immediate, palpable ways. Creating a solo performance about the death of my mother allowed me to experience my loss and celebrate her life in deeper ways than I ever might have imagined. On my recent trip to Israel, one week after the June 1st “Dolphinarium” bombing, I saw, from the other side of the proscenium, how theatre could bring people together to be transported, comforted, challenged and moved as a community.
ATJT is an ensemble theatre. So is Dell’Arte, Isaac director Joan Schirle’s company. Both groups are part of a decades-old national movement, most recently incarnated in the Network of Ensemble Theatres. For all of us, the notion of community, in one form or another, is at the heart of our work. Most ensembles are supported by their communities and feel a responsibility toward them. Many groups work to unite disparate communities. For example, ATJT’s Crossing the Broken Bridge, an exploration of Black-Jewish relations, was presented in venues across the country by coalitions of Black and Jewish groups. Just as importantly, our creative process is often collaborative. It demands that we deal with conflict, group dynamics, leadership, compromise, within a high-pressure, deadline-intensive situation. Sometimes the process feels like war, other times like utopia. Those of us who have survived a while in this kind of work recognize, of necessity, that we’re as often wrong as we are right, that ideas we initially resist can lead to amazing insights when we try them out, that no one has a monopoly on truth. You won’t find many fundamentalists—Jewish. Christian, Muslim, Marxist, or atheist—doing ensemble theatre.
- Corey Fischer
From The SF Examiner Review
Schulner is a mesmerizing storyteller with the ability to hold an epic cultural story up to the light and show the strength and fragility of humanity’s fabric. He brings the mythic story down to an interpersonal level and exposes how we are bound up, and bound together, by our innate doubting and questioning nature. This gifted young playwright deftly shows that mankind’s ability to reason and weigh is a divine gift.
Questioning God isn’t a sin; it is fanatical blindness to a cause or faith that bloodies mankind that profanes faith.
Schulner tells the story Araham and Isaac, of a father who offered his only son up on a fiery altar as a blood sacrifice to a demanding God — from the son Isaac’s perspective.
Schulner’s genius is that he upends the story, to reveal God as a more compassionate father than Abraham. It is Abraham who failed God’s test of regard for human life and compassion and in the end, God weeps.
This Abraham is no steely demigod like Charlton Heston’s Moses. Corey Fischer shades Abraham as a diminished King Lear figure, “drunk with God.” Teetering on the brink of madness, the wild-eyed desert father lives from fix to fix on those pillar-of-fire, mountaintop moments with Adonai.
Forget about Bill and Hillary, this is one seriously fractured first family. Abraham has tossed his wife Sarah out of his bed for turning out his concubine Hagar, mother of his son Ishmael, in an act that launched several thousand years of turmoil between Arabs and Jews. Lest you forget, Abraham is the father of both Jew and Arab nations.
Naomi Newman is Sarah, who frantically beseeches Abraham not to take their only son on the desert pilgrimage. Newman turns in a powerfully insidious performance when the devil channels through her cloying tears.
Aaron Davidman plays Isaac as a spacey surfer kid in board shorts and puka shells wrestling boyishly with his inadequacy to follow in Abraham’s footsteps. Davidman’s wide-eyed performance brims with youthful naivete and heartbreaking earnestness.
From the Chronicle (S. Winn)
Crouching over the son he’s about to sacrifice, Abraham lays his trembling hands on Isaac’s chest. In that moment of agonized consolation, David Schulner’s “Isaac” taps the primal power of the Old Testament story it retells. The show, which opened A Traveling Jewish Theatre’s 23rd season Monday, rises to other points of emotional heat and contemplation…
Schulner’s language shuttles from scriptural solemnity to cheekiness. “Can you tell I’m an only child?” Isaac (Aaron Davidman) muses when his mother, Sarah (Naomi Newman), cuddles up to him in bed one night. “Was there sex?” he quizzes his father, Abraham (Corey Fischer), during a “Sodom” bedtime story…
There are shifts, too, when the actors shed their own roles and embody the devil or the voice of God. In one particularly choice visitation, Fischer dons a blue headdress and arrives at Sarah’s window when Abraham and Isaac have left on their fateful journey. Sinuous as a snake, and full of a poisonous prophecy, Fischer’s old man demands milk from the 100-year-old Sarah and gets it by sucking from her finger…
Fischer captures Abraham’s grief and terrifying faith best at his quietest moments. Davidman ends on a provocatively ambiguous note.
“Why live on this earth?” Isaac asks near the end. The show poses big questions, about faith, family and meaning….
DAVID SCHULNER, PLAYWRIGHT
David Schulner, 27, will have three new plays premiere in the 2001-2002 theater season; This Thing of Darkness (written with Craig Lucas) Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater, An Infinite Ache at The Long Wharf Theater and Old Globe Theater, and at A Traveling Jewish Theater. Isaac is part of a future trilogy of plays from the Book of Genesis. The second is Ishmael, and deals with the relationship between the two half brothers when they meet as adults, and Sarah, the story of the early relationship of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.David holds a commission from The Joseph Papp Public Theater which is currently developing his newest play, “4”, as well as commissions from South Coast Repertory, Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, Humana Festival and A.S.K. Theater Projects.He is currently writing a new musical with Elizabeth Swados about the Wright brothers and adapting the novel Sister Carriefor the stage.David also writes for the critically acclaimed drama Once & Again on ABC. Isaac was developed at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, Lincoln Center, the Joseph Papp Public Theater, South Coast Rep. and A Traveling Jewish Theatre. David was recently accepted into the Julliard School but deferred enrollment to live and work in Los Angeles.
JOAN SCHIRLE, DIRECTOR
Joan Schirle is an Artistic Director and founding member of Dell’Arte International, a resident ensemble with a 27-year history of collaborative creation and international touring. She is an actor, playwright, director and teacher. She has directed productions for The Dell’Arte Company , The Bloomsburg Ensemble, The Alley Theatre in Houston, and Touchstone Ensemble; she directed Picasso at the Lapin Agile (1999) and Waiting For Godot (2000) at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, and created a ground-breaking circus version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for San Diego Rep in 2000 and 2001.As a principal member of the Dell’Arte acting company, she has toured widely with Dell’Arte and with her solo show, Second Skin: Stories of the Mask, to many countries as well as venues all over the U.S. As a writer, she has co-authored over a dozen plays for Dell’Arte and nine of her own. In 1998, she wrote and directed The Weave, which premiered at Dell’Arte’s Mad River Festival and subsequently toured. Her first solo show, Up All Night, premiered in 1996, and Second Skin opened the 2001 National Mask Conference & Festival at the University of Iowa. Her play, Shotgun Wedding, adapted from Moliere’s The Forced Marriage opened the Mad River Festival 2000.
Ms. Schirle is a master teacher at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre, where she teaches commedia dell’arte, mask performance, movement, F.M. Alexander technique, and has served as the school’s DIrector of Training. She is currently drafting an MFA program in Ensemble Theatre for the Dell’Arte School.
Posted under 2001, Archive
This post was written by AkilahC on November 11, 2000